Monday, March 06, 2017

A Hollow Judaism

Rabbi Henoch Plotnik (Mishpacha)
Rabbi Henoch Plotnik is one of my heroes. He is a Rebbe in Yeshivas Meor HaTorah, a Yeshiva high school in Chicago which caters to the Charedi community. He is also a former member of the Chicago Community Kollel (Lakewood). And he is someone that does not have his head buried in the sand. Often standing up against the conventional wisdom of his own community to say or do the right thing. This was apparent not long ago when he was one of the signatories to a proclamation by a group of mostly Charedi rabbis that urged reporting suspicions of sexual abuse directly to the police.

Rabbi Plotnik has risen to the occasion again. In a recent Mishpacha article, he wrote about a problem his own community is facing and tried to address it. From that article: 
Thousands upon thousands of meetings, discussions, and frustrating conversations have been taking place over youths who are living a hollow Judaism. Way too many of our young men and women have been forthcoming enough to admit that they are truly not “feeling it,” but simply “doing it.” 
Those of us who choose to stick our heads in the sand and ignore this phenomenon, claiming that it is an over-exaggeration, that we are manufacturing a new “crisis,” are not being honest or fair. Dare ask some of our finest youngsters, and the answers can be frightening. This is not, in fact, a new crisis as much as it is the root cause of most existing crises. 
I have heard of many polls taken of yeshivah and Bais Yaakov students asking how they feel about Yiddishkeit, and whether they would choose to be born a Jew if given that choice. The kids responding to these questions are, by and large, good kids. They want to give their parents nachas, and they behave like yeshivah or Bais Yaakov students. Nevertheless, the responses to these questions point to a sad reality: Too many people’s Yiddishkeit is dead inside. 
Apparently this issue is a far greater problem among Charedim than most from that community are willing to admit. This is not to say that modern Orthodox Jews don’t have similar problems. They clearly do. But it should be equally clear that modern Orthodox Jews are not alone. Far from it – as a man who is in the ‘trenches’ clearly and fearlessly declares. 

Rabbi Plotnik suggests some very good ideas in how do deal with this problem. Surely it is important to instill a feeling for your beliefs that accompanies the dry teaching of Gemara and Halacha. One has to love his Judaism if one is expected to live it. I can’t think of a greater torture than living a lifestyle that brings no inner joy to one’s life. A lifestyle lived only  in fear of the consequences of sin. I’m not sure how long a young person will be committed to that kind of life before he decides he doesn’t believe in it at all.

The question is, however, why do they not get these feelings from the home? Are the parents in such homes just going through the motions themselves? Or is it that the unique personality of each human being is not geared to the same uniform  outcome expected in a community that values only one enterprise worthy of high praise – Torah study. There may be other factors that lead to a dead feeeling about Yiddshkeit.

What about the lure of the distractions of the culture in which we live? Is that a factor? There is more enticing distraction that is not necessarily positive today than at any other time in history. Even in those circles that try to insulate themselves from it. But those distractions do not affect everyone the same way. Nor are they the sole cause of this problem.

I’m not in favor of banning things. But at the same time there is no doubt that these distractions can contribute. Even a community that tries to avoid it. Let us be clear about who we are talking about. We are not talking about juvenile delinquents with yarmulkes from dysfunctional families. We are talking about basically good kids that want to please their parents. 

How can we instill the joy of Judaism as a remedy for this problem if even good kids with no overt behavior issues see it in their homes and yet are not inspired by it? If we can’t inspire them the way Rabbi Plotnik suggests, it is quite possible that many of these kids will not end up the way their parents hoped they would no matter what a teacher does. Maybe it’s because they don’t feel they fit into the mold their parents or their society expects of them. Which can be depressing and make a young person feel like the Judaism they are being raised in has nothing to offer.

This brings me to another article in Jewish Content Network that deals with another community whose kids are at risk. The Chasidic world of Boro Park: 
Chasidish young men who don’t fit the conventional mold find themselves at a crossroads, trying to find a place where they belong.  All too often they take to the streets, roaming aimlessly throughout the day and night and hanging out on street corners.  At best, they become restless because of their lack of productivity, but many find themselves falling prey to substances and activities that can have devastating consequences. 
While the problems discussed in this article are more serious and not identical to the one Rabbi Plotnik discusses,  I think that the potential for this outcome is clearly there among the type of young people Rabbi Plotnik describes. If trying to instill positive feelings about one's Judaism doesn't work, perhaps the remedy suggested in this article for OTD Chasidic kids in Boro Oark can be applied to the young people described by Rabbi Plotink. Before they go OTD the way these Chasidic young people did.

The program is called 1225. Of the many things it offers those kids, I believe the most significant for purposes of this discussion is the following: 
1225 also offers healthy recreational outlets and valuable opportunities for self improvement. GED classes and EMT training provide visitors to the drop in center with a chance to supplement their often meager secular education and provide them with life skills that can translate into greater job opportunities and enhanced productivity.  
This is not the first time I've said something like this. But in light of these articles it bears repeating. It is one of my pet peeves. It is my considered opinion that Charedi world needs to restructure their educational system from one that places the value of Torah study so high that it ends up denigrating all other endeavors by default. (Even explicitly in some cases).

Just to be abundantly clear, Rabbi Plotnik’s Yeshiva has an excellent secular studies program. I do not address this to his Yeshiva or to him personally. Nevertheless there is this growing attitude in the Charedi world in general.

How did it get to be this way? I believe that Rav Aharon Kotler’s goal to establish the primacy of Torah study in America was responsible for it. When he arrived on these shores he saw Torah study taking a distant second place to secular study and involvement with the culture. He rightly believed that if we didn’t reverse that trend, high quality Torah study would cease to exist. Without which a Torah community cannot ultimately survive. So he successfully changed the existing paradigm by instilling in his students the primacy of Torah study over everything else. He had to do it. It was a matter of survival to him.

To say that he succeeded is an understatement. But I believe his goal has been surpassed and replaced with something that threatens to undermine all of Rav Akaron Kotler’s achievements. Instead of retaining the value of secular studies in its proper position second to Torah study, its value has been eroded to point of being practically worthless. It was an incremental - almost imperceptible devaluation over time. But that’s where we are. I find it hard to believe that Rav Aharon Kotler meant for that to happen.

If this problem is to be solved, then in my view there has to be a reassessment by the Charedi world in how it treats secular subjects; how it treats working people; and the kind of husbands women are taught to seek for marriage. Until that happens, I would not be surprised if the problem only gets worse… and Rav Aharon Kotler’s dream of a Torah society has a serious setback.